New water test results shed light on Juliette contamination

hduncan@macon.comApril 15, 2013 

JULIETTE -- New water tests on Juliette-area wells appear to support the likelihood that uranium and radium contamination there is not related to a nearby power plant.

State officials have long said the well pollution is probably caused by naturally occurring uranium in the underground rock of Georgia’s Piedmont. Radium is formed by the decay of uranium, a radioactive metal.

Dozens of Juliette residents have found unsafe levels of these elements in their well water or high radon levels (caused by the underground radium) in the air of their homes.

Over long periods of time, digesting uranium can harm the kidneys, and digesting radium can increase the risk of bone, liver and breast cancer, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. Airborne radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among American nonsmokers, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Many Juliette residents have expressed concern that a coal ash pond at Plant Scherer, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the country, might be causing the problem. Georgia Power is majority owner and operator of the plant and its 750-acre, unlined pond filled with coal ash slurry, which can contain heavy metals such as uranium.

Last year, the Georgia Department of Public Health released a “scoping report” about the health effects that might be caused by Plant Scherer. It concluded that the plant was probably not the cause of the uranium contamination, but it recommended more water testing.

Since then, water samples tested by the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a smaller group of samples tested by a group of University of Georgia graduate students, showed no pattern of contamination that could be clearly linked to groundwater flow from the coal ash pond. The samples were taken last year, but in some cases it took months for the samples to be analyzed.

Groundwater moves southeast from the coal ash pond toward the Ocmulgee River. But many of the recent samples taken between the pond and the river showed no contamination problems at all.

The UGA students also tested for unsafe amounts of the heavy metals that would be expected to leak from the ash pond along with uranium -- and did not find any.

On the other hand, the EPA test results showed many wells that were not between the pond and the river -- including some wells west of Interstates 75 and 475, in the opposite direction and far southwest of the plant -- were heavily contaminated with uranium, radium and related radioactive particles.

More information is likely to be made public later this month, when the Georgia Department of Public Health anticipates completing a document that will also include the results of a public health survey of Juliette residents.

A team of Macon and New York lawyers have also been testing the well water of clients who are suing owners of Plant Scherer and, in some cases, the nearby Vulcan Materials rock quarry. These residents are seeking damages for water and air pollution.

Attorney Brian Adams, of the Macon firm Gautreaux & Adams, said the water test results are alarming.

In January, Adams’ team filed lawsuits on behalf of 13 families that own homes in the Juliette area. He said he has nearly 200 Juliette clients who have not yet filed suit, and he continues to evaluate more.

EPA test results

Although hundreds of local homeowners had their well water tested at a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension lab, that lab did not have the capability to check for a broad spectrum of radioactive isotopes.

The EPA lab tested not only for radium and uranium but also for specific types of radiation. Public health officials wanted to clarify whether all the radiation issues were coming from radium, explained Jane Perry, director of the chemical hazards program for the Public Health Department.

Alpha particles are the main type of radiation emitted as uranium or radium degrade, and they pose the greatest health risk, she said in an email.

The Department of Public Health sent 45 samples to an Environmental Protection Agency lab for these more in-depth tests. Results were delivered to residents early this year.

Twenty more residents requested tests, so additional samples were also taken in January. Those results are expected later this month, Perry said. No further samples will be taken for this project.

The EPA lab results showed that of the 45 samples, 28 had either uranium, radium or “gross alpha” levels that exceeded safe limits. Some of these were only slightly high, while nine were very high in all three categories.

Ten wells had at least double the maximum acceptable limit of uranium, 12 had at least double the maximum level of radium, and 18 had at least double the maximum level for gross alpha activity.

The very highest result had about 218 times the maximum acceptable limit for gross alpha, 10 times the maximum for radium and 97 times the maximum for uranium.

Some of the highest results came from the Taylor Road area, and other hot spots appeared to be in the vicinity of Dames Ferry Road and Pate Road. But even in these locations, only a handful of wells were tested near each other.

And some other highly contaminated wells were far enough away to have Macon addresses.

Marian Reagin and her husband, who live on Taylor Road, said the water tests showed their well had elevated uranium. Last year, her husband was diagnosed with a liver problem and she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she doesn’t necessarily blame these ailments on the water they’ve been drinking for 18 years.

“It is a concern, but we’re not going to let it worry us,” she said. “We have other things to deal with first.”

She said her family can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a reverse osmosis system to remove the uranium, but she hopes they can work toward it this summer.

Along with EPA water test results, the Department of Public Health offered advice about water filtration and radon air tests to well owners whose contamination was only slightly below or above the point of health concern, Perry said in an email.

Those with levels that far exceeded safe standards received advice about filtration options and were warned not to allow infants and children to drink the water, although it could still be used for bathing and washing clothes and dishes. The department recommended that adults in these homes drink less well water.

“The Georgia Department of Public Health takes the results of these water tests very seriously,” said Ryan Deal, the department’s communications director. “We urge residents to do the same and follow the recommendations outlined in the report included with the test results.”

UGA test results

Early in 2012, UGA students tested the water in the residential area nearest the Plant Scherer coal ash pond. But afterward they realized underground water actually flows in a different direction.

So they followed up with a second small study last summer for class credit. The study analyzed 12 samples taken in the area of underground water flow, plus a control group of six samples taken in Jones County on the other side of the Ocmulgee River. The samples were tested for uranium as well as 14 different heavy metals.

According to the study report, students contacted almost every well owner between the ash pond and the river. The samples were taken on two days. Students left their contact information at houses where no one was home the first day, so they could participate later if they wished.

The results showed no statistical difference between the two groups of samples. Two Monroe County wells were found to be above the safe limit for uranium, but the report concluded that the contamination probably wasn’t coming from the coal ash pond.

“It is important to note there was no presence of other metals typically found in coal ash,” the report stated. “If coal ash was the source, relative levels of (these) other metals may have been present, too.”

In addition, uranium tends to drop out of water when it contacts natural rock or soil.

“This tends to decrease the possibility that uranium leached from the coal ash pond into groundwater, affecting the nearby residents,” the report stated.

The students did recommend more study of air pollution from coal ash and coal dust around the plant, given the amount of coal delivered in open rail cars.

UGA professor Bill Miller, adviser for the student project, acknowledged the study’s small sample size but said, “It would take a rather expensive study to do detailed sampling to get to the bottom of this. ... And there probably should be a lot more study to verify what is causing the health effects people are experiencing.”

Miller said he is interested to see what level of study the state has done when it releases its health consultation.

New report forthcoming

The Department of Public Health plans to release its health consultation report later this month, said Scott Uhlich, its director of environmental health.

As Perry has described it, the health consultation thoroughly investigates Juliette groundwater as a path of exposure to contamination, as well as its potential effect on public health. The document will compile groundwater sampling results, plus community health survey results. As part of the survey analysis, public health epidemiologists will evaluate whether the surveys reveal any patterns in health problems that might relate to the contamination. The raw survey results show more than half of the 60 respondents had apparently not tested their water, despite being concerned enough about it to fill out the survey. (A handful had another drinking water source besides well water.)

Of those who had found unsafe levels of uranium in their water or radon in the air of their homes, few had taken steps to reduce their risk. Just a few, for example, had installed reverse osmosis systems.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.

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